Indian food in London goes upscale and creative — naan, bacon and chili tomato jam anyone?

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Any smell map of London would include the scent of curry. London's got a solid reputation for Indian food. It should. Britain spent more than a century ruling India, so the British capital better know a thing or two about good Indian fare. But you don't think of the typical Indian restaurant in London as classy or expensive. Well, food writer Steve Dolinsky is back from across the pond and he sampled some of the more upscale Indian restaurants in London, places that are now picking up their share of Michelin stars. Steve says these restaurants are both classy and expensive.

Steve Dolinsky: We're talking $130 tasting menus, six courses. One of these places I went to, which is called Benares, which is in the Mayfair area, very posh, next to a Rolls Royce dealership if that gives you any indication, was super sophisticated. Servers in suits, carving whole Tandoori chickens table side that are rubbed in red chili, really beautiful presentation and all these places have one thing in common, they all have interior decorators because I've never seen Indian restaurants so beautiful like I saw in London, so really, really elegant presentation.

Werman: The most interesting place you ran across is a place called Dishoom. Tell us about it and how they take Indian food beyond what we usually know about Indian food.

Dolinsky: Dishoom is really, really interesting. It's based on these Irani cafes that came from the old Aryan-Irani chaikhanas, literally tea houses, that could be found along the Aryan trading routes. So I spoke with the owern, Shamil Thakrar and we talked a little bit about where this tradition came from.

Shamil Thakrar: Iranians have been coming to Bombay for centuries. But a recent wave of immigration in the early 20th century were called the Iranis, and they subsequently set up cafes in Bombay. And by the 1950s and 60s, there were maybe 400 of these cafes. Sadly now, they've died out. These places have enormous affection in Bombayites hearts. People love them.

Dolinsky: You said these cafes are known for being totally Democratic, you could have a taxi driver next to a prostitute next to a politician?

Thakrar: Indeed. In a way, these cafes were some of the first places people actually went out to eat as leisure. That wasn't really done before in India. These spaces, as a result, began welcoming all sorts of people. And because the Iranis were outsiders, they welcomed everybody. It wasn't a Hindu place, it wasn't a Muslim place. They didn't have any problems letting everyone in.

Werman: That's Shamil Thakrar, the owner of Dishoom, the restaurant in London. Steve, I had no idea about this Bombay connection with Iran, former Persia. It's kind of an Iranian snack bar adapting Bombay cooking. Is it a snack bar in appearance in London?

Dolinsky: No, they really give you the sense that they have picked up a cafe from the 1940's or '50's and transported it to London. The beautiful tiles on the floor, the worn wooden chairs, the lazy ceiling fans up above. Clearly they spent money on the design but in terms of the prices, they're very reasonable. You're talking $5 to $15 for many of these items. So in the morning, you'd have a bun maska, a very simple Irani cafe classic, just kind of a toasted hot bun outside, slice of butter inside, dipped into some spicy chair, that's it. But they're really known for this bacon naan roll. So this is where naan, the ubiquitous flat bread that you see in every Indian restaurant, and they bake these to order. But because you're in London they're known for bacon sandwiches and so they combined a little bit of bacon inside this naan, add a little bit of cream cheese and herbs but then, going back to the Indian side, some chili tomato jam, so you kind of had that sweet to counteract that richness, that fattiness from the cream cheese. This is something that costs $5.

Werman: I doubt the Iranian pedigree of this restaurant would've endorsed the bacon naan.

Dolinsky: They probably wouldn't have but this is what Shamil really prides himself on, that they have taken this concept and then they have adapted it for the London audience because they certainly bring a little bit of British into it. Little things like berries you'd see in Persia, it's very, very important to have barberries but you can't find those in London, so they're going to put cranberries in one of their dishes. They make little adjustments to kind of adapt for the local audience.

Werman: I'm going to put you on the spot: best thing you had in any of these Indian places you ate at in London.

Dolinsky: I had this incredible lunch at Moti Mahal, which is near Covent Garden, really elegant lunch. I had a couple of things: a little baby chicken that was rubbed in red chili spices, cooked in the tandoor and then a green chili-braised rabbit, which I had never seen in an Indian restaurant before. But of course, everything is better with beautiful raita, that cooling yogurt, some basmati rice, a little bit of paratha or naan and then some cumin-spiked cauliflower and then to drink, instead of a Kingfisher beer, honestly I would have something like a German riesling or gewurtztraminer which really counteracts that spicy food well.

Werman: Steve, you know how to live man. I want to be you just for one day.

Dolinsky: We'll figure something out. I can work on that.

Werman: Food writer Steve Dolinsky just back from London where he's been sampling some pretty upscale Indian food. Great to speak with you Steve, thank you.

Dolinsky: You too Marco, thanks.

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